Paris is an incredible city, filled with more monuments, museums, and restaurants than I could possibly see in one semester. During the week, I am constantly moving, trying to schedule museum visits around French university classes and lengthy meals. The weekends provide the perfect opportunity to escape the busy city for a day trip to other beautiful, famous locations in France, most of which can be easily and quickly reached by train or bus.
For my first French excursion outside of the city, I decided to go on a group trip to the Château de Chantilly, a historic castle located in Chantilly, France, about 23.9 miles northeast of Paris, which is about a 25-minute train ride. If you choose to take the TER—the high-speed train line that serves over twenty regions of France—you can buy a round-trip ticket to Chantilly for as little as 16 euros, making it an ideal day trip for students like myself who are working with a limited budget. Since my program had planned the entire excursion, I just had to drag myself out of bed and arrive at the Gare du Nord train station at 9:00 am, ready for a long day of sightseeing.
The château is surrounded by fields and woods, and can only be reached by walking down a long path flanked by trees on either side—a sight which I am sure is far more beautiful in the spring and summer than in the winter. We reached an enormous building, which many of us thought was the chateau, surrounded by statues of horses; to our surprise, our guide told us that this building was the Grands Écuries, or the Great Stables, where the château’s owners had kept their horses.
The château itself is an imposing structure of turrets and terraces, surrounded by a wide moat. The castle is actually composed of two joined buildings that date from different time periods: the Petit Château—built for the Constable Anne de Montmorency around 1560—and the Grand Château, which was destroyed in the French Revolution and completely rebuilt in 1875 by Henri d’Orléans—duke of Aumale—and transformed into the Musée de Condé. Upon his death, the duke left the entire château, as well as its impressive collection of artwork, to the French Institute, thereby ensuring that the castle, the museum, and the stables would remain open to the public.
The inside of the castle is stunning. The walls are covered with intricate designs in gold leaf and wall-length paintings chronicaling the Duke’s military triumphs in Algeria. The furniture is a mixture of pieces from the age of Louis XIV and Napoleon. The castle also contains a library, filled with hundreds of rare and ancient books, as well as a chapel—if you had the good fortune to live at Chantilly, you would never have any reason to leave. The château is also renowned for its lush park, landscaped by the gardener of Louis XIV in the same style as the famous gardens of Versailles (some of the previous owners were cousins of the king, a position that clearly had benefits). The park is composed of four different gardens: a formal French garden—which features numerous fountains, statues, and a grand canal—an English garden; an Anglo-Chinese garden; and a rustic hamlet area, a great favorite of Marie Antoinette. In the French garden, we befriended the resident cygne (swan), but our relationship quickly soured when he started trying to defend his territory. We walked through the garden to reach the cottages in the hamlet, bracing ourselves against the bitterly cold wind. Unfortunately, our tour of the park ended rapidly as hail started to fall at an alarming rate, and we sprinted back to the castle.
Chantilly’s most stunning feature is the Musée de Condé, which is considered the most impressive collection of paintings in France, after the Louvre. The museum features works from many different time periods and painters, ranging from famous French tableaus to priceless works by Raphael. The collection is also known for its extensive selection of rare portraits: one room is entirely covered by paintings of French monarchs and nobles. Since the death of the Duke, the paintings have remained in their original locations, allowing visitors to see the works as they were arranged in the nineteenth century. My favorite pieces were two full lion pelts that adorned the walls, decorated with weapons and paintings of the hunt.
If the château’s beautiful architecture, gardens, and artwork aren’t enough of a draw, Chantilly is also the birthplace of Chantilly Cream, which is essentially a French version of whipped cream that is far superior to anything available in America. When I tasted it at the castle’s restaurant, I thought I had just bitten into a delicious, strawberry-flavored cloud.
Although I love being in Paris, it is wonderful to be able to escape to a picturesque castle in the countryside for the day. My only advice: plan your visits to the castle later in the spring so that you can enjoy the beauty of the site without fear of winter weather.